Confessions of a grade inflater

Rebecca Schuman will give A’s or A-minuses to 20 of her 33 college students. Her lowest grade, except for total screw-ups, is  B+. Professors inflate grades to avoid whining — and bad course evaluations — from their students, she writes.

If I graded truly fairly—as in, a C means actual average work—the “customers” would do their level best to ruin my life. Granted, there exist professors whose will to power out-powers grade-gripers. There are stalwarts who remain impervious to students’ tenacious complaints, which can be so single-minded that one wonders what would happen if they had applied one-fifteenth of that focus to their coursework.

Increasingly, college faculty are adjuncts with zero job security, she writes. “Precarious faculty” are “rehired based almost solely on student evaluations—which, alas, are themselves often based on how “well” the student is doing in class.”

Adjuncts like me regularly admit to grade inflating, simply as a survival measure, but the consistency of nationwide trends means that even tenured and tenure-track faculty must be inflating grades, too. After all, a pissed-off student who goes all the way to the dean can impact their careers as well.

A return to a real grading system is impossible, Schuman writes. All those “parents of co-valedictorians” wouldn’t stand for it. On her Pan Kisses Kafka blog, she quotes some incredibly obnoxious advice on how to bully professors from Tim Ferris’ Four-Hour Work Week.

If I received anything less than an A on the first paper or non-multiple-choice in a given class, I would bring 2-3 hours of questions to the grader’s office hours and not leave until the other had answered them all or stopped out of exhaustion.

“The grader would think long and hard about ever giving me less than an A,” the bully brags.

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  1. “…which can be so single-minded that one wonders what would happen if they had applied one-fifteenth of that focus to their coursework.”

    And thus we have the drive against “inequality”. If you take two students of equal ability, but one applies that fifteenth of focus over the course, and especially, if over the time at the university, the one who puts in the effort will be leaps and bounds above the other. They’ll have the same “A” but they will no longer be equal in reality due to the compounding of learning.

    Grade inflation will protect the student. Perhaps the protests on the quad over inequality are really an attempt to protect the graduate from the harsh reality of failure to learn?

  2. Given how loathe many colleges are to assign meaningful grades, and given how the elite colleges have often led the pack when it comes to grade inflation, perhaps it’s time to come up with a system that defies inflation. Some colleges have adopted a “high pass / pass / low pass / fail” system, with defined percentages of the class that will receive a high or low pass. Sure, the vast majority of students, about 90%, will end up with a generic “pass”, but that’s no different from a system in which they are guaranteed an A+, A or B- save for the fact that it doesn’t suggest that everybody’s work is superlative.

    My graduate school changed its first year grading policies as I was graduating, and the next incoming class enjoyed a GPA that was, on average, .3 higher than the more senior classes. That was on the heels of elite private schools inflating the GPA’s of their students, creating (for them) an advantage in the job market. My graduate school, an elite state school, knew that it was giving its students comparatively low GPA’s that disadvantaged its students on the job market, but was very reluctant to follow suit. I don’t know why they finally changed their approach, but I suspect it was fear of reduced enrollment following an economic recession that hurt its placement statistics.

    Back in that era, most graduate schools offering masters degrees had largely inflated their grades to B, B+, A and possibly A+, with anything below a B regarded as a “failing grade”. More recently when my wife completed a masters degree, the lowest grade that was considered non-failing was a B+.

    There’s some truth to the argument that grades, particularly individual grades, aren’t a good measure of how somebody will fare in an employment environment. There are studies indicating that in many work environment, students whose grades are largely good but include some “lesser” grades tend to outperform the straight-A students. So to a degree, debating over grade inflation is a tempest in a teapot. If nobody fails, and letter grades are effectively meaningless, you’re not depriving anybody of key information by switching to a non-lettered system.

    A better method of evaluating knowledge at this point, than trying to guess what to make of a given grade or GPA, would probably be to offer achievement tests and certifications that would assure that students had mastered certain key tasks.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Regarding your wife’s experience in her Master’s program: at the graduate level, it’s often *explicit* that a B+ is the lowest acceptable grade, and that anything less is an indication that perhaps you aren’t cut out for the “big leagues” of your chosen field. Of course, at least in theory, only the best students are let into graduate programs. So this is hardly unexpected.

      This is often the argument given, by the way, in defense of grade inflation at top tier undergraduate institutions such as Harvard, etc. Their students are the best, so why wouldn’t you expect them to have superior work? And that brings us to an interesting issue.

      Now we might argue that this sort of grade inflation interferes with the ability of grades to serve as an effective sorting/differentiation mechanism. But maybe that’s not really their function, or maybe that’s not their exclusive function. (It’s their function in some law schools, which is why there is a strict statistical curve enforced at many law schools.)

      Grades are tricky things. I’ll be the first to agree that “good” grades, especially in the “B” range, are given out at prestigious schools for crappy work. Some of that is a result of lax standards, some of it is a result of administrative pressure, and some of it is just laziness and not wanting to deal with whiny students.

      But it’s a complicated tangle of interests, and one of the first things you have to do to address it effectively is figure out what it is you want grades to *DO*. And people have a lot of different answers for that.

  3. Crimson Wife says:

    Clearly, she teaches in the humanities. STEM courses typically set the median to somewhere in the C+ to B- range in order to weed out students who can’t hack it.

  4. Sounds like a grades-as-perceived-IQ ranking system, rather than as an indication of degree of mastery.

    Do I want the Doctor the prof thinks is the smartest, or do I want the one that learned the material and knows how to think? Do I want all who learned the material to pass? I could care less if they all did the work and acheived mastery and earned an A. The more good doctors the better.

  5. Reminds me of the old saw: “What do you call the person who graduates last in his med school class? … Doctor”

  6. I had an engineering prof who reasoned thusly:

    If anyone gets a 100% or a 0% on a test, then I haven’t discovered the student’s’ complete range of knowledge. Only if the grades are spread across a wide spectrum of scores can I evaluate the actual level of the individuals in the class and the class as a whole and adjust my lectures accordingly.

    He was good to his word. Typical test scores ranged from about 30 to 90 percent. He then used a complicated mathematical formula to curve the scores into letter grades based on the mean, median and standard deviation of the numeric scores.

    I’ll tell you this, it was truly scary at first: You would take the test and have a terrible feeling that there certainly were a lot of questions you didn’t fully understand. Then, you would show up in class and be handed a test: “OK, Mr Soandso (he always referred to students as Mr and Miss), you scored a 57 (heart stops beating, roaring in ears) and that’s a B- (heart starts to beat again).

    I learned a lot in that class, but also aged a bit…